It’s been 50 years since three extraordinary Berkeley women—Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick—set out to halt the filling and degradation of San Francisco Bay. Save the Bay, the organization they founded, marks that milestone on Saturday August 13 with a “county fair” celebration at Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline in Oakland. The event, from 9 am to 1 pm, will feature volunteer weeding along the shoreline, food, and games, including “wetland bingo.”
“In 1960, most of the bay’s shoreline was closed to the public…Often for good reason,” writes John Hart in San Francisco Bay: Portrait of an Estuary. “‘Anything that stank or was dangerous,’ one observer notes, ‘wound up on the bayshore.’ That strictly utilitarian shoreline was a place of refineries, military bases, explosives factories, firing ranges, ports and airports, sewage outfalls, and dumps. It was not a place for enjoyment.”
The bay was also shrinking rapidly, as cities and developers pushed fill-in projects. Berkeley alone was planning to double its size by filling 2000 acres. Others proposed demolishing Mount San Bruno and filling 23 square miles of the South Bay with the rubble.
One grandiosely cockamamie scheme, the Reber Plan, would have dammed the northern and southern ends of the bay (converting them into freshwater reservoirs), filled the shallows all around the bay for industrial use, and thrown in a couple of submarine bases. The Army Corps of Engineers took this seriously enough to create the Sausalito Bay Model to study its effects on sedimentation.
“Crossing the bay, and seeing what was happening to it, and also smelling it when you went down the shoreline, made me realize that something I loved and had grown up thinking was always going to be here…maybe wasn’t going to be,” Esther Gulick, who was married to UC economics professor Charles Gulick, told an interviewer in later years. Over lunch at the Town and Gown Club, Gulick, Kerr (wife of UC president Clark Kerr) and McLaughlin (wife of UC Regents president Donald McLaughlin) decided to do something about it.
They invited 13 key environmentalists to a planning session. As Kerr later told Hart, the Sierra Club’s David Brower told the women, “Well, it’s just extremely important, but the Sierra Club is principally interested in wilderness and in trails.” Other (all male) conservation leaders also demurred. They gave Kerr, McLaughlin, and Gulick their mailing lists and wished them luck.
By 1970, Save the Bay had recruited 18,000 members. “The bay became a wildly popular cause, and hundreds of thousands of people (including me) were converted to environmentalism in the process,” UC Berkeley geography professor Richard A. Walker writes in The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area. “Nothing was more essential to the foundation of the Bay Area’s green culture. It all goes through Save the Bay.”
The group’s first notable success was the passage of the McAteer-Petris act in 1965, which placed a moratorium on bay fill and created the Bay Conservation and Development Commission to fill the regulatory void. Over the years, Save the Bay has battled the Peripheral Canal, the plastic bag lobby, airport runway expansion, Gov. Pete Wilson’s attempt to kill BCDC, and, currently, development plans on the Bay’s edge at Redwood City. Thanks in large part to their campaigns, the fill-and-build mania was held in check, sewage treatment has been vastly improved, public bayshore access has expanded from 4 miles in 1961 to 180 today, and some tidal marshes have been restored.
But the battle isn’t over. “What we have learned is that the bay is never saved,” said Kerr, who passed away in 2010. Gulick had preceded her in 1995; McLaughlin is still very much with us. Saturday would be a good day to honor their memory and their achievements. Weeding tools, gloves, and instruction will be provided. Visit www.savesfbay.org or call Natalie LaVan at (510)452-9261 extension 109 for more information.